Consuming alcoholic beverages on a daily or near-daily basis was linked to a cognitively healthy and longer life in older adults in a study by led researchers at the University of California San Diego.
Moderate to heavy (but not excessive) drinking was defined as up to three daily alcoholic beverages for women and for men age 65 or older, and up to four for men under age 65.
The study, titled “Alcohol Intake and Cognitively Healthy Longevity in Community-Dwelling Adults: The Rancho Bernardo Study,” is the first “to examine the association of the amount and frequency of alcohol consumption with cognitively healthy longevity versus being cognitively impaired in later life or dying before age 85,” its authors report. It was published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.
With people living longer, health concerns are shifting toward helping them achieve or maintain lifestyles that preserve cognitive well-being. Alcohol intake is known to affect cognitive health, with most studies concluding that moderate alcohol consumption has a positive effect. But this association has not always been consistent across studies.
The researchers set out to study the relationship between the amount and frequency of alcohol intake and its relation to cognitive health by analyzing the drinking habits and health of 1,344 older adults living in Rancho Bernardo, a suburb of San Diego.
Alcohol intake was determined by questionnaires administered between 1984–87 and cognitive health evaluated in six visits, undertaken every four years from 1988 to 2009, with interviews using the Mini-Mental State Examination or MMSE.
Results showed that moderate and heavy drinkers (three or four glasses of alcohol daily, depending on age and sex) were twice as likely than non-drinkers to live to be 85 and remain in good cognitive health. Excessive drinking is known to damage the thinking or cognitive abilities of older adults, but the study did not examine excessive drinkers because few of the participants were found to drink to excess.
People who drank in relative moderation on a near-daily basis were also two to three times more likely to live to 85 without cognitive impairment than infrequent or non-drinkers, the study reported.
Researchers also took into account multiple lifestyle and health-related factors, such as income, education, diet, physical activity, and smoking. The results remained significant across all those factors, they said.
The team notes that the possible neuroprotective effects of alcohol consumption are not well-understood. They suggested it may stem from increased levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL, or “good” cholesterol) and lower low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or “bad” cholesterol), “fibrinogen, and platelet activity, slowing the formation of amyloid plaques and preserving optimal vascular function in the brain.”
The study, however, concludes by warning against excessive alcohol consumption and encourages those who abstain to continue to avoid it, noting that “alcohol use contributes to 88,000 deaths annually [in the U.S.] and has a substantial number of additional adverse health, economic, and societal consequences.”